Photo: Jill Carlson.

From assessing need to evaluating mitigation techniques, a number of good studies have advanced the region's flooding and resiliency knowledge but more is needed.

Major events like Hurricane Harvey create a focal point for research. Since the storm’s rains began one year ago, the Kinder Institute, our colleagues at Rice University and at institutions and organizations across the city, region and nation have been working diligently to try to understand the storm, its impacts, and how it will shape the future of our region. 

Collectively, we have learned a great deal from this effort. But, with billions of dollars in aid coming the region’s way and many residents still recovering, there are countless decisions to be made as a community. Those decisions must be shaped by solid research. Since Harvey, we have aimed to use our work and collaborations with peers to engage public agencies, officials and residents with data and analysis that helps inform decisions. 

As we continue to move forward with new rounds of research, it is worth reflecting on what we have learned from this year of work. The lessons we have drawn from our own efforts, our collaborations and the findings of others offer insights that should be incorporated into our subsequent decisions as a region. 

Our work this year had revolved around several themes:  

-      Collecting and sharing primary data 

-      Presenting information in accessible ways

-      Identifying needs and vulnerable populations

-      Hosting outside expertise to augment local knowledge and action

-      Finding innovative ways to pay and plan for preparation

One of the first things many researchers did after the storm was to collect data and share it with the public. Colleagues from Rice University were out in the storm collecting water and air quality data that became essential to subsequent analysis. The Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents a number of questions about the storm. Through the Rice Houston Engagement and Recovery Efforts (HERE), Rice professors began to conduct oral histories and collect memories from residents across the region. The recently launched Hurricane Harvey Registry will continue to collect that information and track impacts. This primary data collection is essential in order for the region to follow the effects of the storm over time. 

The Kinder Institute has worked with many of these efforts to make collected data available to both the public and fellow researchers through our Houston Community Data Connections portal—which offers neighborhood level data—and through our Urban Data Platform—a site that researchers, local organizations and individuals can access to tie different datasets together.

The Kinder Institute created a story map to aggregate and easily communicate the data being collected. Our tool displayed information about inundation estimates, patterns of flooding between Harvey and earlier storms and impacts to local schools. Colleagues at the Houston Advanced Research Center published a similar aggregation of health related information. Such efforts helped both residents and non-local observers understand the impacts of the storm and the challenge of recovery. 

As the scope of the disaster became clear, the Kinder Institute was tasked with providing a set of needs assessments for the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. The fund, jointly established by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Judge Ed Emmett, raised more than $114 million to aid the region. The Kinder Institute completed two reports aimed at informing where the most dire needs existed. The first was released in November 2017 and the second in January 2018. Using a wealth of data—from 311 to FEMA applications to information collected from community based organizations—each of these reports identified vulnerable populations and areas where damage had occurred. This work dovetailed with other large-scale efforts such as the Episcopal Health Foundation’s survey of the 24-storm-damaged counties. 

As regional discussion turned from recovery and immediate needs toward the longer-term rebuilding of our infrastructure and neighborhoods, the Kinder Institute joined the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. This entity, convened by several local philanthropies, undertook the task of providing research to inform the choices decision-makers and the public would need to make about recovery and rebuilding. The consortium’s major strategies report was published in April and offered a large set of considerations for the region to grapple with. Key among these were calls for planning to occur at the watershed level, for the whole range of mitigation and flood control options to be considered and for participation to be central. Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center also set to work documenting the infrastructural progress and needs of the region, including with a recent report examining some of the major projects proposed for and issues remaining in key watersheds in Harris County.

The Kinder Institute, the consortium and other partners also brought a number of external experts to the region to discuss best practices around recovery, mitigation and resilience. With the consortium, the Institute brought five national experts on flood buyouts to Houston in February 2017. These experts had a variety of experiences with buyout programs and were able to interface with residents, elected officials and agencies leaders about how to strengthen Houston’s approach. Further, the Kinder Institute produced a buyout report to highlight some of the key ideas shared by the experts and others drawn from across the nation. 

In June, again with the Consortium, we convened a panel of experts from outside of Houston to discuss ways our region might approach planning and paying for resilience. A key takeaway from this discussion was the need to approach funding with flexibility and to try to build different constituencies to support mitigation projects. The speakers also highlighted the need to view water as an opportunity to be built around and as an asset to shape, rather than as a cost or risk. 

With the Houston office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, we convened a conversation about how build a more resilient housing system in the wake of Harvey. The summary report from the resilient housing event laid out a number of interventions and action items for Houston to consider. One theme that overlapped with calls from other efforts was the importance of civic empowerment and neighborhood-level and resident-led planning. 

Bringing in outside experts and learning from their experiences and research complemented the work of regional researchers and augmented the knowledge, experience and practices of local leaders and residents. 

The Kinder Institute also worked with the Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi to produce two reports about how disaster recovery is funded in the United States. The first provided an overview of the funding process. The second pointed to gaps in the existing system and offered a number of pathways to improve the system. Each showed the need to create additional venues for funding that would rely on local and regional sources. Such approaches could encourage earlier mitigation and potentially reduce the long-term costs of rebuilding. With huge amounts of funding coming into the region from the federal government in the years ahead, local funds, such as the pending bond proposal from Harris County, offer an important local match and representation of more flexible funding.

For all the research that has been done and for all the actions taken by officials and residents over the past year, though, there are several areas where additional work should be done. 

There is still a need to reach a deeper understanding of affected and vulnerable populations. There are many residents still reeling from the storm. Accounting for their ongoing needs is essential to documenting the true cost of the disaster and helping them recover. 

As we begin to see recovery dollars spent and programs brought on-line, there is an immense need to track the efficacy of these interventions. Crucial to this effort is an examination of the equity of response. If the programs and spending are concentrating in some areas and neglecting others, we risk leaving residents or neighborhoods behind. We must build programs that support the entire city. And we must evaluate the efficacy of those programs in pursuing that goal. 

Connected to the equity of recovery, additional work is needed to ensure that resident participation and neighborhood-informed planning is occurring. Entities such as the University of Houston’s Community Design Research Center have already broken a path to including communities in the process of identifying and implementing locally-desired flood interventions through its collaborative community design initiative. The Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, and Harris County have conducted public input on major projects and program proposals. This engagement should continue. Researchers have a role to play in encouraging this effort by working in partnership with local residents, not separate from them. 

Finally, it’s clear that researchers must continue to talk to one another, to officials, agencies, and residents. By keeping the channels of communication and collaboration that were established through entities such as the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium open, the Kinder Institute and our peers can leverage our expertise to deliver important data and analysis to the region.